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The Logic and Limits of Nonviolent Conflict

BERLIN, Jan 25 2012 (IPS) - Today marks the one-year anniversary of the uprisings in Egypt that unseated an authoritarian regime and rekindled the spark of nonviolent resistance around the world.

According to CANVAS, nonviolent resistance movements have a much higher chance of success than armed struggles. Credit:  Maged Helal/CC-BY-2.0

According to CANVAS, nonviolent resistance movements have a much higher chance of success than armed struggles. Credit: Maged Helal/CC-BY-2.0

The mass demonstrations that began on Jan. 25 in Cairo appeared spontaneous, ignited by the Tunisian Jasmine Revolution some weeks before. But according to Srdja Popovic, a seasoned organiser and founder of the ‘Centre for Applied NonViolent Action & Strategies’ (CANVAS) in Belgrade, that assumption is far from the truth.

A consultancy group for nonviolent resistance movements around the world, CANVAS prides itself on having trained pro-democracy activists from almost 40 countries in nonviolent techniques and strategies.

Members of Egypt’s April 6 Youth Movement, a decisive force in bringing down former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, were disciples of the organisation, which has been dubbed the ‘Revolution Academy’.

In CANVAS workshops, members of April 6 became familiar with forms of peaceful protest, creative provocation measures and practical advice on how to behave in critical situations. They took classes in fundraising and recruitment and gained valuable advice on how to attract new supporters to the movement.


Coupled with the revolutionary fervour that swept across Egypt throughout 2011 and is still visible on the streets today, CANVAS’ training of key young members of the resistance bore fruits of a legendary nature.

“2011 was the worst year for the bad guys ever,” said Popovic at a discussion in Berlin entitled, ‘Democracy Promotion – Democracy Export – Regime Change?’, referring to the many pro-democracy uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East that have come to be known as the Arab Spring.

Popovic easily counts himself as one of the ‘good guys’, given that he was a driving force behind the Serbian student movement Otpor! (meaning resistance) that peacefully toppled the ‘butcher of Belgrade’ Slobodan Milosevic from power in the year 2000.

A proven formula?

Popovic is the executive director of CANVAS and, by extension, the chief trainer at the ‘Revolution Academy’.

A veteran organiser, he inspires professionalism, assertiveness and confidence when he speaks about the techniques of “how to get rid of a dictator” and of the importance of unity, planning and nonviolent discipline as “the universal principles of success.”

Assuming that a successful pro-democracy movement needs the support of just three to eight percent of the population, the chances of overthrowing dictators anywhere in the world are quite high, Popovic said, corroborating his assertion with the results of a report explaining ‘Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict’.

Authored by Erica Chenoweth, assistant professor of government at Wesleyan University, and Maria J. Stephan, a strategic planner with the U.S. Department of State, the report analysed 323 violent and nonviolent resistance movements from 1900 to 2006 and concluded that “major nonviolent campaigns have achieved success 53 percent of the time, compared with 26 percent for violent resistance campaigns.”

Chenoweth and Stephan examine campaigns like Gandhi’s struggle for Indian Independence from British rule in 1947, the Solidarity movement in Poland in the 1980s, the civilian-based movements in Serbia (2000), Madagascar (2002), Georgia (2003) and Ukraine (2004) as well as the ousting of foreign troops in Lebanon (2005) and the restoration of civil rule in Nepal (2006) and the Maldives (2008).

The study bolsters the ‘democracy export’ policy introduced by former U.S. president Ronald Reagan back in 1983, which is as dynamic today as it was more than two decades ago – in fact, Washington invests roughly two billion dollars a year in nonviolent global interventions, or what critics of the model call ‘hidden U.S. imperialism’.

Both authors argue that nonviolent resistance has a strategic advantage over violent resistance. Repressing peaceful protests could backfire, resulting in a breakdown of obedience amoung regime supporters, mobilisation of the population against the regime and international condemnation or sanctions, which often serve to weaken those in power.

The authors go a step further to predict that key members of the regime – including civil servants, security forces and members of the judiciary – “are more likely to shift loyalty toward nonviolent opposition groups than toward violent opposition groups.”

When repression by state forces is directed towards nonviolent campaigns, the report estimates the rate of defection by security forces to be as high as 46 percent.

Popovic also stressed that nonviolent strategies against authoritarian rule, as well as the use of social media tools rather than weapons, are, in general, far less risky endeavors for individuals involved in the movement.

Limited success

Solid research and success stories notwithstanding, many experts believe there are crippling limits to CANVAS’ strategies.

What CANVAS refers to as “small risk campaigns”, Anselm Weidner – a prominent German journalist and expert on nonviolent struggles – slams as irresponsible “marketing” tactics that could easily cause new violent realities.

Referring to CANVAS’ ‘method of the fist’ (a reference to the organisation’s use of the fist as its official symbol), he said, “This is a highly media-dependent and dangerous business idea that might lead to counter-revolutionary scenarios.”

Weidner warned that CANVAS’ strategies often fail in post-revolution scenarios.

For example, “One year after the beginning of the Arab Spring, Egypt is experiencing an icy authoritarian winter,” he stressed.

Though CANVAS trained leaders like Mohamed Adel and other members of Egypt’s April 6 Movement, Weidner believes identifying people like Popovic and the great nonviolent theorist Gene Sharp as the initiators of the Arab Spring is a “cynical and megalomaniacal interpretation of history.”

In fact, Popovic himself has noted on numerous occasions that nonviolent revolutionaries should “mistrust foreigners”. But as one participant at the discussion in Berlin remarked, this recommendation seemed “strange” coming from someone who is in the business of ‘exporting democracy’ and is financed by the U.S. and other Western powers.

Frank Schimmelfennig, a prominent researcher at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, said that ‘democracy promotion’ is useless unless there is a political will in certain countries to democratize.

Referring to post-Communist Europe, he said that genuine examples of democracy promotion were few and far between, except when the European Union dangled its “carrot of membership” as bait.

In another example, Belarusian democracy has been consistently ‘promoted’ for the last 15 years with very little tangible success, due mostly to a lack of strong internal leadership.

Tatiana Poshevalova from the Program of the European Commission reminded the audience in Berlin that Belarus was the “most sovietized country” in the Eastern bloc and thus collapsed at the same moment as the former Soviet Union, leaving very little time and space in which to produce a strong civil society.

“Our main problem now is the lack of internal actors,” she said on a panel on Jan. 16.

“In this land that lacks a (democratic consciousness) there was nobody to prepare us for democracy and no time to build up a (sufficient) democratic force,” she said, echoing the lamentations now heard throughout Egypt, as nonviolent soldiers grow weary with the ongoing war for freedom.

(*The story moved Jan. 25 2012 contained an error in the 22nd paragraph. The first sentence has been changed from: “Though he praises CANVAS for training leaders like Mohamed Adel and other members of Egypt’s April 6 Movement, he believes identifying people like Popovic and the great nonviolent theorist Gene Sharp as the initiators of the Arab Spring is a “cynical and megalomaniacal interpretation of history” to “Though CANVAS trained leaders like Mohamed Adel and other members of Egypt’s April 6 Movement, Weidner believes identifying people like Popovic and the great nonviolent theorist Gene Sharp as the initiators of the Arab Spring is a “cynical and megalomaniacal interpretation of history.”)

 
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